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Afghanistan's Transition Can Succeed -- Maybe

The attack by protesters on the UN compound in Mazar-e Sharif demonstrated how ill-prepared Afghan forces are to take over security responsibilities on their own.
The mob attack on a United Nations office in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif on April 4 demonstrated how ill-prepared the Afghan security forces are to handle security responsibilities on their own.

The mob -- apparently protesting a Koran burning in Florida -- ransacked the UN offices in a city that is considered an oasis of stability in Afghanistan. Mazar-e Sharif is one of the seven provinces and towns slotted for a complete handover to Afghan hands in July.

As Afghan leaders emphasize sovereignty and brace their forces for the responsibility of ensuring the security of their country, critics ask whether Afghanistan is capable of handling this monumental task independently.

Given that the most sophisticated war machine in history could not stabilize Afghanistan despite trying various approaches for a decade, how can the poorly armed Afghan Army succeed in pulling off this miracle now?

Long-Term NATO-Afghan Partnership Is Needed

Notwithstanding the negative prognoses in Western media, it is not impossible that Afghans can secure their future. Afghanistan's tumultuous history over the past couple of centuries offers evidence that its people are capable of securing their homeland.

After all, in the mid-20th century, Afghanistan was one of the most stable countries in Asia. With the help of their international partners, they are fully capable of recreating a stable and secure country.
U.S. soldiers training Afghan National Army troops

A long-term strategic partnership between Afghanistan and NATO must be in place before the last official handover ceremonies take place. That partnership should include the establishment of a couple of NATO bases in Afghanistan, which can help prevent the disintegration of the Afghan security forces.

The Afghan National Army might project the image of a disciplined and professional force, but it is still prone to dissipate into the rival factions of the 1990s civil-war era. Ordinary Afghans believe that many among its rank-and-file are more loyal to regional identities and strongmen than to the country as a whole.

The fear of American air strikes now serves as the glue that keeps this force together. In the future, the presence of permanent bases would ensure that Afghan soldiers and warlords refrain from embarking on adventures.

Furthermore an Afghanistan-NATO strategic partnership would also help prevent ill-intentioned neighbors from openly interfering in Afghanistan's domestic politics. Some critics suggest that a strategic partnership and Western bases in Afghanistan might further provoke Pakistan and Iran to intensify their meddling in Afghan affairs. But one should remember their disastrous adventures in the 1990s, when the West effectively abandoned Afghanistan to their whims. Their proxy wars enabled Al-Qaeda to carve out a sanctuary in the country.

Training Efforts Must Be Stepped Up

In addition, efforts to train and equip the Afghan security forces must be dramatically stepped up. Afghanistan is a mountainous country where no ground force can succeed unless it is supported by an effective air force.

Even with its highly trained ground forces, NATO can’t withstand Taliban ambushes in critical parts of the Afghan theater without effective air power. How will the poorly trained Afghan forces fare?

The recently launched local police initiative should also be strengthened and better organized. Instead of forming large militia squads, small units with the consent of tribes should be created under the watchful eyes of the government.

It will be important to properly fund such bodies to prevent them from devolving into marauding militias. These frontline soldiers will deny sanctuary to the mobile forces of the Taliban.

Political Factor Is The Most Important Component

The most important component any plan to restore stability to Afghanistan, however, is political. Afghans should start looking for a strong president acceptable to various ethnic and political groups and the international community.

In a multiethnic society, the president of Afghanistan must be neutral and able to deal with all segments of society in a fair, equal, and transparent manner. Any efforts to rig future presidential elections or attempts to install a crony or relative of the incumbent will prove catastrophic for the transition process.

Coincidentally, 2014 will see both a presidential election and the final phase of the security transition.
Graduation ceremony for new Afghan Army recruits

The president of Afghanistan should know traditional Afghan approaches to war and peace. Modern rules of conflict resolution can only work when applied with respect to Afghan traditions. Thus a president should be able to lead his troops in battle and deal with political nuances in Kabul.

An Afghan leader should prove to his countrymen that he is no puppet. A complete security handover will help the next leader to create such an impression among Afghans, but this doesn’t mean the international community should abandon Afghanistan's leadership at this critical juncture.

A repeat abandonment of Afghanistan will undoubtedly turn into a security nightmare for Afghans and the international community. Al-Qaeda is still alive and watching developments in Afghanistan closely. Pakistani and Afghan extremists immediately replaced small NATO bases in the remote regions of eastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces earlier this year.

These regions again are becoming their strongholds. Al-Qaeda now provides resources, training, and guidance, while Afghan and Pakistani Taliban supply the manpower. If left unchecked, they will not remain in remote valleys. Extremism does not recognize frontiers.

Mohammad Amin Mudaqiq is an editor with Radio Free Afghanistan. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL